Questions surrounding Toyota's transparency over safety issues were once again voiced this week by USA TODAY when Toyota spokesman Hideaki Homma admitted that the Lexus brand had been aware of the latest issue affecting the V-6 and V-8 engines in its vehicles for at least two years. 138,000 cars built by Lexus have been recalled in order to deal with faulty valve springs that at best lead to rough idling and additional engine noise and at worse cause the engine to cease functioning entirely.
Not only were Toyota engineers on top of the valve spring issue found in the Lexus GS, Lexus IS and Lexus LS automobiles affected by the problem as early as 2008, but they had also managed to devise a solution. It involved replace the spring with an all-new component that was not vulnerable to the same materials contamination that affected the original component, and it was effectuated partway through that same year. However, while engines built after the spring failure had been taken care of were immune to any further problems, neither Toyota (in the home Japanese market) nor Lexus (abroad) felt the need to go ahead and replace the springs that were known to be faulty in older vehicles, or even inform owners that there might be a problem brewing under their hoods. This is despite the fact that the company was made aware of the spring failure issued thanks to a growing chorus of complaints from Toyota owners in Japan that began all the way back in 2007.
Toyota has dismissed the concern that it ignored a retrofit of 2006 - 2008 Lexus automobiles by stating that the problem itself was classified internally as 'extremely rare.' However, given that more than 100,000 vehicles have now been recalled to address the problem, it has become clear that the lack of response from both Toyota and Lexus had little to do with its actual seriousness and was in fact more related to a corporate culture which was more comfortable covering up concerns rather than airing them out for potential buyers and owners to see. This is exactly the attitude that saw the company pay a record $16.4 million fine to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for failing to initiate a timely recall for vehicles affected by the unintended acceleration defect - despite documented evidence of the issue and even dealer action taken in Europe to alleviate the problem several months beforehand.
The Japanese giant has pledged in recent months to completely overhaul the way it communicates safety information to the public, even going so far as to appoint a special advisory group charged with improving the brand's efforts in this area. Today the company also announced that it would extend product development time in order to accommodate more real world, in-house testing, as well as simplify platforms to reduce engineering complexity. It remains to be seen whether it will take yet another regulatory intervention in order to convince Toyota that its actions must at some point intersect with the safety and product promises it has made to its customers.